‘The Empire Strikes Back’ at 40 – Looking back at the film that changed Star Wars forever

As you’ve probably noticed, I really like writing about Star Wars. I write (and think!) about Star Wars more than any other pop culture franchise, and I recently wrote a probably way-too-long piece for “May the Fourth” on what Star Wars has meant to me over the years.

Does the world need yet another Star Wars article from me? Probably not, but as a longtime fan, I couldn’t let the milestone 40th anniversary of “The Empire Strikes Back” pass by without reflecting on it.

It’s hard to imagine Star Wars today without “Empire.” Although “A New Hope” is a great film and it’s tons of fun to watch, “Empire” is the film that transforms Star Wars into an epic, sweeping saga. Not only does it have one of the best film twists of all time — Darth Vader’s shocking admission to Luke that “I am your father” — it’s a darker, richer film that challenges the characters and forces them to confront their own doubts and weaknesses.

I’m so used to “Empire’s” place in Star Wars canon that sometimes I forget just how groundbreaking it was at the time, with its uncertain cliffhanger ending, more serious themes, and the introduction of an unlikely Jedi master: a little green alien named Yoda. Yoda is such a crazy character concept, but somehow it works, and drives home the point that Jedi aren’t just stereotypical warriors. The Jedi path is about knowledge, curiosity, and acceptance.

While “Empire” may be more somber than “A New Hope,” that’s not to say it isn’t still fun. It still has plenty of action/adventure and the delightfully goofy content the Star Wars franchise has always been known for. It has some of the greatest Star Wars action sequences, like the Millennium Falcon racing through an asteroid field, and pitch-perfect banter between Han and Leia (“I love you” – “I know” is one of my favorite bits of dialogue in the entire saga).

“The Empire Strikes Back” is far more than the money-grabbing sequel it could have been; instead, it’s a vital building block in the larger Star Wars saga. Even more so than the film that came before it, it serves as the template from which the rest of the franchise has evolved.

I know the Star Wars prequels were controversial, but one of the things I’ve always admired most about George Lucas is that he’s willing to take chances and tell the story HE wants to tell, rather than just lazily copying what made his first movie a hit over and over and over again. All of his six Star Wars films feel very unique. “Empire” proved that he was willing to try new things, and throughout the years he kept pushing the franchise in different directions. Maybe fans didn’t always appreciate the direction the films went in, but I’d much rather have a bold filmmaker who occasionally stumbles than someone who’s afraid to venture outside the boundary of what worked in the past.

The best Star Wars of all time?

“The Empire Strikes Back” has long been viewed as the “best” Star Wars movie both fans and critics — does that statement still hold true today in the Disney era of Lucasfilm, when we now have more Star Wars content than ever?

Personally speaking, “What is the best Star Wars movie?” is a question that interests me less and less these days; I’m far more interested in what individual fans say is their own personal favorite Star Wars movie. That’s a question that leads to more in-depth and creative discussion, at least in my opinion. The Star Wars fandom has gotten waaay too divisive lately, and I’m tired of all the angry arguing over what the best Star Wars is, and what Star Wars should (or should not) be.

“The Empire Strikes Back” may well be the best Star Wars movie, but I personally like to dream big and think that maybe the best Star Wars movie of all time hasn’t even been made yet. Who knows what Taika Waititi and Krysty Wilson-Cairns will come up with for their recently announced film project!

I believe that sometimes Star Wars fans do themselves a disservice by clinging too tightly to the original trilogy. Yes, it’s awesome, and it will always have a special place in our hearts. But I’d rather Star Wars keep that innovative George Lucas spirit and continue to take chances and give us new stuff.

Thanks to the groundwork laid by “The Empire Strikes Back” 40 years ago, the franchise is still looking good. Without “Empire,” I definitely wouldn’t have my personal favorite era of Star Wars, which is the sequel trilogy. I doubt we’d have “The Mandalorian” either, or all these other spin-off stories.

As a fan I can’t wait to see what we’ll be talking about decades from now as the franchise continues to expand and grow. What will Star Wars look like years from now, when “Empire” celebrates its 80th anniversary?

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